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Op-Ed: Reducing Disposable Bags Means Both Paper and Plastic

Plastic bags may have a worse reputation, but their paper equivalents are at least just as bad for the environment

Rocco D'Antonio
Rocco D'Antonio

Over the past several years, plastic bags have become public enemy No. 1 for the environmental community, with several states, cities, and communities seeking to ban them. Here in New Jersey, a number of municipalities have jumped on the anti-plastic bandwagon and proposed bans and fees for disposable bags. And there are several legislative proposals to reduce the use of bags, ranging from a complete ban on plastic to a fee on all paper and plastic bags.

While much of the attention has been focused on eliminating and reducing plastic bags, it is important to recognize that paper bags are also a major menace to the environment. In fact, many studies show that paper bags are actually doing more harm than plastic. According to a study from the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency, a paper bag’s life cycle analysis (LCA) is “significantly worse” than plastic in terms of its impact on health and the environment. That’s because the carbon footprint of paper bags, from production to checkout counter, is far larger than that of their plastic equivalent.

Indeed, paper bags have a significantly more adverse impact on the environment when it comes to manufacturing, transportation, and solid-waste volume. Studies have shown the production of paper bags requires greater resources than the production of plastic bags — including water, energy, and chemicals — and emits more pollutants into our atmosphere and water. The nation’s paper industry also generates more than 12 million tons of solid waste a year, according to an EPA study. And the increased volume of paper over plastic correlates directly to the significant increases in the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions produced to transport it.

Paying a premium for paper

Because of the high cost of production and transportation, paper bags are also considerably more expensive for retailers, costing three to four times more than plastic. If stores were required to ban plastic and use only paper bags, major retailers estimate that would add an additional $100,000 per store in annual costs, which would ultimately be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services.

Therefore, any meaningful environmental solution to reduce disposable bags must include both paper and plastic. A proposal currently moving through the State Legislature (link:http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2018/Bills/A3500/3267_R1.HTM|A-3267]) would reduce the use of all disposable bags statewide by implementing a 5-cent fee on all disposable bags, both paper and plastic. Four cents of that fee would be remitted to the state and dedicated to an environmental fund. The remaining penny would be retained by the retailer to cover compliance costs.

This legislation is based on a successful model in Montgomery County, MD, which reduced the overall use of disposable bags without harming the retailer or burdening the consumer. Countywide, the program has prevented hundreds of millions of bags from entering the waste stream and raised more than $2.6 million in tax revenue in the first two-and-a-half years, with a county population of approximately 1 million. A fee on paper and plastic provides incentivizing behavior while still allowing for flexibility for retailers and customers to transition toward reusable bags.

Finally, it is critical that legislators adapt a single statewide policy, rather than ask businesses to comply with a patchwork of regulations. We applaud the towns seeking to clean up their communities by limiting the use of disposable bags. However, both New Jersey’s environment and its economy would best be served by a statewide initiative that includes both paper and plastic. We urge Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature to support A-3267.

Rocco D’Antonio serves as managing member for Organic Diversion, LLC, food-waste recycling company. Before founding Organic Diversion, he spent over 25 years in distribution and recycling of paper and plastic grocery bags.

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